Children's story: Helena Writes #45--Timmy Tooligan's Cow

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
Date Posted:

Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 45th post, Helena shares an original story about an adolescent boy who comes into his own through his relationship with a prize-winning but stubborn cow. Enjoy!

Children’s story: Timmy Tooligan’s Cow

Buckeye County held its summer kick-off livestock parade and picnic on the Fourth of July.

On one particular Fourth, an out-of-state traveler lost the main road, came to the Mullins’ cow barn, and stopped to ask the farmer directions. The farmer pointed into the pink dawn. “Left at the barn, first right—highway’s on your right.”

The woman next to the driver turned, caught a glimpse of a young boy in the barn’s shadow, rubbing the gleaming brown and white hide of a Guernsey milk cow. She heard him croon on the breeze, just stirring. 

“Bette, aren’t you fine!” the boy said, talking to that cow as easily as if she were his best friend. And she was.

But if five minutes had passed, the farmer would have gone up to the house for his second cup of coffee. If the driver had called to the boy, he would have been met with silence, while the boy tugged at the strap of his overalls.

Because if Timmy Tooligan had tried to answer, his words would have come out a stammer. The driver would have pulled off, looking for someone else to ask along that quiet country road.

 At 10 o’clock, next door to the farmer’s, Timmy’s father was about to fill a blue plastic swimming pool so that Timmy’s sister, Alice Anne, could sail her tin boat, a prize from a box of caramel popcorn. Suddenly the wind snapped and lifted the pool like a leaf. 

Timmy’s mother was in the kitchen, mixing a spice cake batter for the sweets table. The celebration was due to begin in the meadow at noon.

“Fine day for a parade,” said Mrs. Tooligan, looking out the window. Then she saw the pool sail past her gingham curtains.

Timmy watched it float over the meadow.

“It looks like a space ship!” Alice Anne hollered. Then the blue pool fell out of the sky, Thwaap! into the middle of the Mullins’ pasture, where Bette and the rest of the herd were eating their breakfast. Bette started mooing. The rest of the herd joined in.

Timmy Tooligan had raised Bette, an orphan calf, himself. “Doted on her like a human child!” his mother liked to say. Everyone in Buckeye County knew what this parade meant to Timmy. Bette had been picked by the livestock board to lead the parade.

Some folks looked sideways at that. They said Bette was spoiled. The way Timmy cared for her, any cow would have been. But you couldn’t blame him. Bette didn’t make fun of the way he struggled to get his words out. Thing was, with Bette, Timmy spoke like anyone else.

That Bette had her ways, everyone agreed. She was, the farmer said, eccentric. Like the time she leaned against the pasture gate until it gave way and headed to the woods, the rest of the herd following. She walked into the river, stood up to her knees to cool herself. The Mullins’ cows took up residence on the river bank for August and most of September. From the highway bridge, you could see them ruminating on swamp marigolds and cat tails. Farmer Mullins and Timmy came in the hay truck filled with sweet corn, calling to them, while the cows chewed their cud, never glancing their way.

Then one day, Bette walked home, the herd trailing behind. “Must have needed a vacation, like any folks,” Mrs. Mullins told Bo Brown of the Buckeye Blade.

 At 11:15, Nate Sykes drove up with the podium for the Mayor’s speech. The cows were still mooing over the blue pool as he drove back down the lane. They mooed until they were worn out, then stood like stones, watching the pool to see what it would do next.

“What now?” said Mrs. Tooligan quietly to herself. 

Timmy got his rope. He tied it around Bette’s neck and tugged. Bette dug in her hooves. “Come on, Bette,” he pleaded. But Bette’s pupils only dilated, concentrated on that pool.

 Mr. Tooligan’s scout troop band began arriving. Bobby Rodriguez screwed the mouthpiece onto his tuba. Katy McKinnon played scales on her glockenspiel. Tabby and Tommy, the Yamaguchi twins, assembled their flutes. Mary Beth Washington practiced her trumpet.

Mr. Klemchuck pulled up, his pickup loaded with folding chairs. “What’s wrong with those cows?” he wondered out loud.

May Parker, the garden club’s president, shrugged. “It just looks like the Tooligans’ pool to me!”

“Looks like the farmer’s going to have his hands full,” said the club’s vice president, Loolie Chen, snapping off dry geranium leaves.

“Oh my!” whispered Timmy’s mother. She rang Farmer Mullins to tell him about his cows. 

The farmer growled more than spoke into the telephone. Mrs. Tooligan wasn’t sure of what he said, but she saw him open his front door, puffing at his pipe. “Bette!” he shouted. “Get up there! Sparky! Susannah! Sarah! Sailor! Maggie Rose! Git up!” But the herd might have been a circle of statues.

Buckeye’s volunteer fire department arrived, dressed up and riding its new hook and ladder. Mr. DiSantis drove up in his Model T Ford, hauling the homecoming float. As folks arrived, they set up tables for the flea market, contributed goodies to the dessert table, or settled down in the meadow to pass the time until the mayor’s speech. One by one they turned their heads toward the pasture, nudging each other as they noticed the herd. “There’s trouble!” said Lily Berman. “This could take some time,” said Bunny Perea. “Doesn’t look good,” said Tom Lewis. “Nope,” agreed Artie Schultz. 

“Come on to the barn, Bette,” said Timmy, rubbing the cow’s muzzle. “I’ve got some sweet mash for you.” He pulled the rope and turned her head. Bette pulled back, one eye on Timmy and one on the pool.

Mrs. Tooligan’s eyes were on her son. He looked so small in that circle of milk cows.

Alice Anne ducked under the fence, carrying the wreath of daisies Timmy and his mother had woven for Bette. “Where are we going to swim now, Timmy?” asked Alice Anne.

“Hush up, Alice Anne,” said Timmy. But his sister could see that his chin was quivering.

Bob Harris and Joe Williamson staked ropes for the relay races. 

Mrs. Tooligan met Timmy in the pasture with peanut butter and carrots. Bette barely sniffed them.

Bo Brown showed up to take pictures for the Blade. The Ladies Club opened the ticket booth. The Men’s Club set up horse shoes.

The McCloskeys arrived with their pigs.

Mrs. Tooligan helped Timmy tie on the ribbons of Bette’s wreath. 

“Isn’t that the farmer’s orphan calf?” asked May Parker.

“His prize Guernsey!” said Rose Kelly.

“Wouldn’t be either, except for that boy,” said Mr. DiSantis.

“There’s going to be some livestock missing from that livestock parade,” said Loolie Chen.

Mr. Tooligan looked over at the pasture and caught his wife’s eye. She shook her head and shrugged. Mr. Tooligan tapped his baton. The Yamaguchi twins raised their flutes. Bobby Rodriguez boosted his tuba into position. The rest of the scout band tuned up.

“SOU-EEE!” cried Mr. McCloskey.

Mr. and Mrs. Henry arrived with their goats, and Bonnie, their dog, zigging and zagging to keep them moving. The Hartmans arrived with their sheep. Mrs. Finter struggled with Hee Haw, her mule. 

Amidst the barking, baa-ing, maa-ing, squealing, and hee-hawing, a crowd gathered at the fence.

“Round up all livestock!” Mrs. Harris called over a loud speaker.

“We’re ready to go!” called Mr. Henry.

“Move you Guernseys!” growled Farmer Mullins.

“Get that cow some honey!” called Nate Sykes.

“Get her a ride!” exclaimed Loolie Chen.

Mrs. Tooligan ran to the house and came back with a slice of her homemade sourdough bread, spread with last year’s strawberry jam. 

“BETTE!” someone called. “BETTE! BETTE!” took up the crowd.

The wind rippled the thick purple pasture clover and stirred the cloth on the bake sale table. Mrs. Finter’s hat went flying and the pool flapped. It rose, hovered, sailed over the herd, then plunked back down into the sweet yellow vetch at the other end of the pasture. The herd shuddered, backed up, turned the other way to face it, then closed ranks and began walking, Bette first. 

Timmy’s face was bright red. He bit his lip, “D-darn pool!” The farmer heard him say. He fought tears, but anyone near enough, including Farmer Mullins, could see them spill over. 

Buckeye’s Homecoming Queen, Ellie Torres, arrived. The afternoon sun baked the meadow and wilted the rhubarb leaves in Mrs. Tooligan’s kitchen garden.

The Mullins’ turkeys gobbled. The sheep pawed. The goats kicked. Hee Haw was putting up a fuss. Ellie Torres fanned herself, rolling her eyes. Except for May Harper’s fruit cake, the sweets were gone. Farmer Mullins sat on the pasture fence, smoke rising lazily from his pipe. 

Mrs. Tooligan’s wristwatch read two minutes to one. She put her arm around Timmy. Timmy looked at his shoes.

Mayor Hadley mounted the podium. He tapped the microphone. But everyone’s attention was on the Mullins’ cows. They had arrived at the other end of the pasture and closed into a tight huddle over the pool. Bette sniffed it. 

“Er—guess it will be just a few more minutes…” said the Mayor.

A crowd had gathered at the fence to place bets.

“Err…proceeds to go to the library’s book fund!” called the Mayor.

Sam Finter put down his hat. It filled up with dollar bills. May Harper kept a record of who bet what.

Mayor Hadley loosened his tie. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to—” he began. “We’re—going to have to start—without—”

Mr. Tooligan nodded to Bobby Rodriguez. Bobby raised his tuba and blew the first note of “Strike Up the Band,” the march they’d practiced all spring.

Some people got up to dance. 

Ooom ooom ooom! played Bobby Rodriguez. Oooom-moo-oooom!

Timmy listened to Bobby play.

Oooo! Moooooo! Moooooom!

Timmy’s head tilted and his eyes narrowed.

Mayor Hadley held up his hand. “It’s nearly 1 o’clock. I’m afraid we’ll have to start—well—now!”

Timmy’s mother sighed.

Loolie Chen looked disgusted. “That ungrateful cow wouldn’t be breathing if it weren’t for that boy!”

The band had run through their march twice. “Let Me Call You Sweetheart!” Mr. Tooligan whispered. 

Mooooooom! Moooooooom! played Bobby.

Mrs. Tooligan was looking from Timmy to the herd. Timmy’s head was tilting. Bette was prodding the blue plastic with her hoof.

Suddenly Timmy crouched, the way he did when he was about to whip Alice Anne at a game of marbles. He pulled up a weed and put it into his mouth.  He looked from Bobby to Bette and back again. “H-hold up!  he called.

He climbed through the fence and hurried over to Bobby and whispered into Bobby’s ear. Bobby Rodriguez looked at Timmy. Timmy nodded and whispered again. Now Bobby nodded. Then he bent to the tuba and blew a long, low note. Mooooooooo-oooooooom! blew Bobby.

Timmy’s eyes locked onto the herd, whose eyes were locked onto the pool.

Then from Bobby’s tuba came the longest, lowest note anyone had ever heard a tuba blow. It was a moan. Mooooooooooooooooooo-ooooooooooooom! A groan. Moooooooooooooooooom! It was the sound of a cow who had stumbled into a field full of sweet grass in the middle of a winter dream.

Oh Susannah looked up. She turned her head toward Bobby. She looked at his tuba. She looked at Bette. Bette was hoofing at the pool.

Moooooooooooooom! played the tuba.

Susannah looked back at Bobby. Moooooooooooooooooooooooo! she answered.

Suddenly all the Mullins’ cows began lowing, except for Bette. Susannah broke ranks and trotted toward Bobby Rodriguez. One by one, Sparky, Sailor, Maggie Rose, and the rest of the milk cows straightened up and turned their heads. Then they followed Susannah, leaving Bette to mind the pool. 

TIMM-EEE! TIMM-EEEEEE! The crowd called.

“It’s going to be nighttime before this parade gets going,” Alice Anne complained.

“That’s the truth!” said Loolie Chen, looking at the sky. The sun had begun its downward arc toward the horizon. Bette’s shadow lengthened on the blue-green pasture grass. The scout band got into their places, Katy Phelps and the glockenspeil first, the tuba bringing up the rear. They filed ahead with Susannah and the rest of the herd of Guernsies trotting after, tails swinging in time with Martha Jackson’s drum.

 “Let’s go!” shouted the Mayor. The turkeys, sheep, goats, Hee Haw, and all the other livestock fell in behind the cows, Heidi and Bonnie weaving in and out of their legs, barking to keep them moving.

Timmy Toolegan stood, a tiny figure, nearly lost in his long, blue, afternoon shadow. 

Mrs. Tooligan watched him from the fence. 

“Oh, Timmy,” said Alice Anne. Timmy slumped like a sack of potatoes. Some of the crowd was still pitching bills into Mr. DiSantis’ hat at the fence. 

Others still chanted encouragement, “TIMM-EEEE! TIMM-EEEE! BETT-EEEE! BETT-EEEEEE!”

Now, standing beside his prized cow, Timmy stared at the dented pool. He stared and stared. Then his mother saw Timmy’s chin jut forward. She saw him crouch, saw his fingers reach for the pool. She watched as Timmy poked his pointer finger clear through the dent where the plastic had cracked and separated. Mrs. Tooligan smiled.

Timmy untied Bette’s rope. He pushed one end through the hole in the pool, tied a knot, held onto the other end and began walking, dragging the pool behind him. The parade was just starting down the dirt road to the general store. Timmy never looked back to see what Bette was doing. 

Then he heard it, a long, low groan of a note behind him, coming from somewhere deep down in Spotted Bette’s vocal chords. Moooo-ooooooooooooooo!

Timmy didn’t turn his head. It was Timmy’s father who saw Bette shake her head as if waking from a nap. She snorted, turned and followed the pool bumping along behind Timmy.

“Thank heavens!” said Timmy’s mother softly.

“Stars and Stripes Forever!” called Mr. Tooligan.

Bette sauntered after Timmy and the pool clear to the head of the parade as if nothing had happened to interrupt her understanding of the role she was born to play. The herd fell in behind her. The goats and sheep followed, chickens and ducks and Hee Haw, Bonnie and Heidi prancing and barking to keep them in step. The Model T pulling Ellie Torres, wilting like Mrs. Tooligan’s rhubarb but waving for all she was worth. 

Bo Brown ran behind snapping pictures, and the crowd finally counted up the proceeds that overflowed the brim of Mr. DiSantis’ hat. “A-HUNDRED-AND-NINE-DOLLARS FOR THE LIBRARY FUND!” called Mr. Nathan Sykes.

Timmy dragged the pool until it got caught in the brambles and slipped away. But by then Bette was enjoying herself leading that long, maa-ing, baa-ing, honking, hee-hawing parade.

It was dark when the parade looped back to the meadow. But the crowd had grown raucous. When Mayor Hadley stepped back up to the podium and tapped the microphone, everyone felt too good to stop what they were saying and listen. At last he just shouted, “BUCKEYE’S THE BEST!”

“THE BEST!” answered the crowd.



“Buckeye’s the best darn county, with the best darn livestock, and the best darn livestock PARR-AAADE!”

The crowd hooted.

The Mayor awarded the blue ribbon to Bette, and $25 to Timmy. And for the second time that day, Timmy surprised everyone. He put his hand gently on the Mayor’s arm and moved up to the microphone. The Mayor couldn’t quiet that crowd, but Timmy Tooligan did. 

“Bette and I are—uh—real—um—grateful," said Timmy.  "Uh—we'd sure like to thank everyone for this ribbon.  We—worked hard—uh—well—Bette is one fine cow!" Timmy said it like anyone would say it, and the crowd cheered, one by one getting to their feet, hooting and hollering both their names—Timmy Tooligan, and Spotted Bette, his prize-winning orphaned cow.

It wasn’t just Loolie Chen who was dabbing at her eyes, passing a packet of tissues. Mrs. Tooligan’s face was shining and Mr. Tooligan saw her turn away and cover it with her embroidered handkerchief. 

Mr. Mullins hustled the cows into the barn so that the Civil War League could set off their fireworks at the far end of the meadow. Then the Scout Band played the national anthem and people drifted off to gather up their table clothes and empty dishes, load them up, and start up their engines, bumping along the meadow onto the road, to set out home. Others lingered and spoke softly until the chill night air moved in off the woods. 

Timmy and the farmer walked slowly across the pasture to the barn, to feed the cows their mash and water them after the long, hot day.

“Darn fine Guernsey you’ve raised up there, son,” said the farmer before leaving the boy to his cow.

“Thanks, Mr. Mullins,” said Timmy. He hung the daisy wreath, a little yellow now and drooping, in Bette’s stall, so she could see it, and hung the blue ribbon next to it, where it fluttered in the breeze. He brushed Bette’s coat, rubbed it with peppermint oil and fed her some clover. Spotted Bette pressed her head against Timmy, snorted a warm breath against his cheek and gave him a rough wet kiss.

At 11:30, Mrs. Tooligan closed the kitchen curtains. Mr. Tooligan looked out the bedroom window. Spotted Bette was at the barn door. She walked across the pasture and stood at the fence, her spots shining silver under the moon. She gazed across the meadow at the road, where Timmy’s father had leaned the broken pool against the electric pole for the recycling truck.

“Go to sleep!” Mr. Tooligan heard Timmy call. Bette mooed softly before she turned and walked back to the barn.

After that summer, if, of an evening, a car had wandered off the main road and pulled up to the Mullins’ barn to ask directions, Timmy Tooligan would have stepped out of the barn’s shadow, up to the driver’s-side window, and pointed to the county road. “Head straight and make the first right, then right at the barn—that will take you to the highway.” He’d likely say. And he might pass the time some, with a little talk about the weather. 

What did you think of Helena’s latest story? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

Want to receive tips and inspiration like this in your inbox every Sunday morning? Join our email list community! You will receive weekly advice, a year’s worth of weekly writing prompts as a FREE download, and be eligible to participate in our monthly photo prompt contest for a chance to share an original piece of writing with our community of more than 2,200 writers.

Add new comment

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.